Finding the Right IBS Diet

Finding the Right IBS Diet

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common condition that affects the digestive tract, with roughly 12% of people worldwide having some form of it. For many, it can feel like a major restriction on their lives, having to give many food groups a wide berth to avoid symptoms. Sometimes it’s hard to predict flare-ups or they seem to happen without any provocation, so what can be done to cope with IBS?

There’s help for those wanting to both enjoying a varied diet and keep their IBS under control. Sometimes it can be the addition of just a few items that can help maintain a balance, or the careful avoidance of certain foods. All it takes is a little information and planning and you can minimise how IBS affects your life.

Understanding IBS

To know why some foods disrupt the bowels, it’s first important to understand IBS itself. It usually affects people during their 40s, though it can be diagnosed as young as teenage years in rarer cases. Unfortunately, there’s many frustrating elements when it comes to IBS. Firstly, there’s often no cause, although traumatic events or gastroenteritis (where the stomach or intestines become inflamed) may trigger it. Secondly, there’s no cure or even a proper medical treatment, only managing the symptoms and their severity. Lastly – and some might say the most impactful – is that IBS can severely restrict an individual’s diet, as certain kinds can upset or inflame the now-sensitive bowel.

There’s many common foods and drinks that contribute to flares in IBS. Anything that either contributes to gas in the stomach (like soft drinks) or that the body finds difficult to digest are the main culprits. There might be triggers individual to people outside of these, too – it’s important to listen to your body’s signals and to adjust your diet where needs be.

It’s hard to hear that your need to exclude sometimes favourite foods from your diet, but the side effects are often simply not worth another glass of coke or extra cheese in your dinner: diarrhoea, constipation, painful abdominal cramps and uncomfortable bloating. What we can do, though, is give our body the best possible chance to lessen the blow of these symptoms through diet, whether that is indeed by avoiding choice foods or creating a friendlier environment in the gut.

For the vast majority of IBS sufferers, a series of foods have been identified that can lead to flare ups. If your IBS is particularly bad or if you’re unsure which foods might trigger your symptoms, the following diet may be a good place to start:

FODMAP Foods

One of the most prescribed diets for those with IBS involved avoiding FODMAP foods. FODMAP stands for fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols – short chain carbohydrates that the digestive system has a hard time absorbing into the body. The majority of these foods’ digestion is done in the large intestines where it’s fermented by bacteria. This creates large amounts of gas and contributes to bloating and IBS.  Lowering or cutting out these foods from your diet creates a more favourable environment for the ‘good’ bacteria in your guy to thrive, helping to alleviate IBS symptoms. 

What’s often suggested is that those with IBS go on a zero FODMAPs diet, cutting them all out for about two months. After that, if symptoms have improved or disappeared, start introducing individual foods back into your diet one by one, carefully noting any reactions to them. This diet shouldn’t be followed for an extended period since we have little knowledge of the long-term effects – it’s more for nurturing the gut bacteria to good health and then moving back into a more diverse diet that works for you and your body.

There’s several groups of foods with certain ingredients that should be avoided when on a zero FODMAPs diet. These include:

  • Lactose – dairy products like animal milk, cheese, yoghurt, ice cream and anything featuring these. Luckily, these foods are obvious and easy to both avoid and replace; non-animal milks from almonds and rice are go-to substitutes for everyday life.
  • Fructans – these are found in some vegetables, most prominently in onions and garlic. Also included are asparagus, broccoli, leeks and artichokes. One important source of fructans to avoid is wheat, found in so many of our everyday foods: bread, pasta, baked goods, cereals and more. Switching to whole-grain versions of these can help.
  • Fructose – these are ‘natural sugars’ that are usually found in fruit. Apples, pears, mangoes and peaches are high in fructose and should be avoided. There’s fructose in honey and high-fructose corn syrup (easy to spot in the name!), both used as sweeteners. Corn syrup isn’t used nearly as often in the UK as it is in the US, but look out for its other names – Fructose-Glucose Syrup and isoglucose – when shopping for soft drinks and sweet treats.
  • Polyols – another sweetener, this can be found in a range of sugar-free mints, chewing gums and some other sweets.  It’s also present in some of the fructose-high fruits, along with plums, apricots and watermelons. Mushrooms are, surprisingly, also a big source of polyols.
  • Galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS) – a complex name for a non-digestible prebiotic, it’s most commonly found in in beans and pulses: chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans, baked beans and soybeans. Thankfully, GOS’s are uncommon in other foods, making them easy to avoid.

This diet can seem restrictive, but there’s still plenty of foods out there that you can still enjoy and be creative with. Proteins like meat and seafood are still on the menu, as well as vegetables like carrots, tomatoes, courgettes, peas and potatoes. There’s also low-fructose fruits that can keep your diet vibrant: bananas, grapes, oranges and various berries. You can still treat yourself too, with sorbet and dark chocolate being gut-friendly. Remember to be conscious of what you drink, too, as many have added milk while alcohol can create gas in the gut. This might mean changing your tea and coffee order to black or using non-dairy milk instead.

What we’ve described here is only a small portion of the do’s and don’ts of a low FODMAP diet. For many it’ll be difficult to entirely cut some foods from their diet, but even reducing those down will help your gut to normalise. If you want a more precise idea of what sets off your IBS, then it’ll pay to persevere with the diet and completely cut out FODMAP foods.

How You Eat

There’s more to IBS beyond the dietary causes – how you eat your food and the condition of your body can be just as important. With the increased sensitivity of the bowels, slight physical and mental changes can trigger symptoms, no matter the food you’re eating. Let’s examine what habits you can change to ease the pressure on your digestive system.

There are some straightforward ways of reducing irritation; critically analysing portion sizes and reducing them where possible simply gives the digestive system less work to do. In a similar vein, chewing food for longer means the bowels have an easier time of breaking the food down. During meal times, try to talk less and avoid gulping food, to reduce the amount of air you swallow. As mentioned previously with alcohol and soft drinks, gas in the digestive system – even air – can contribute to irritation. Eating slowly and calmly will have a positive effect on your digestive system.

Eating three square, home-cooked meals a day contributes to overall digestive health, especially to those with IBS. Skipping meals or eating on the move might be tempting, but it can put extra stress on your gut if it’s expecting a meal but receives something that’s lacklustre-- or nothing at all. Eating a large meal late at night can be bad for your digestive health too, as this can cause inflammation and bloating when trying to sleep (the digestive system works best when you are upright, not laying down).

We’re talking a lot about stress on the gut, but mental stress can contribute to IBS, too. Making sure that you’re looking after your mental health will make mealtimes smoother. Another physical trigger are periods and menstrual pains – while this can be much more difficult to treat, birth control pills makes periods much easier to predict, meaning you have the ability to plan around potential IBS flare ups.

Supplements

Another part of your diet to consider when talking about IBS are supplements. There are a few that have the potential to aid the body in digestion, with research backing up some of these claims. Even a few supplements a day might help settle your stomach.

Probiotics

Naturally, probiotics are part of the conversation when talking about IBS – the ‘friendly’ bacteria in our stomach that cultivate a stable, calm environment in the intestinal tract. The most common way to increase our probiotic levels is through either yoghurts or probiotic drinks. Sadly, as these are both dairy products, and yoghurt often contains artificial sweeteners, they can aggravate the gut of those with IBS. Luckily, there’s an alternative way of getting your dose of probiotics.

Supplementation is a great way to get a steady flow of good bacteria into your gut. There’s been some positive research into the efficacy of probiotics on IBS treatments. It’s an inexact science, though, as IBS has many different triggers and there’s a staggering array of different probiotics. It’ll take some time before experts can narrow down which combinations work best; in the meantime a broad supplement can support your gut

Vitamin D

Produced when sunlight hits the skin, vitamin D is used primarily to bolster the immune system and to strengthen bones. Unfortunately, it’s the vitamin that UK citizens are the most deficient in, for a number of reasons: spending too much time indoors and weak sunlight during winter months being the leading ones. The government recommends that the average person supplements from October to March, or year-round if you work indoors or have darker skin.

But what about vitamin D for IBS? Well, it’s an interesting – and recent – correlation that’s been discovered. A 2018 review of around 19 studies involving the supplement and IBS has shown that there’s a positive impact to symptoms. The review notes that symptoms lessen the higher the dose of vitamin D, too. Naturally, more research needs to be conducted before it can be officially prescribed as support to IBS sufferers, but since the vast majority of us are deficient anyway, there’s no reason not to add vitamin D to your daily routine.

Conclusion

IBS is a stubborn, sometimes oppressive condition to live with. It’s easy to feel as though we have little power over it, but that’s not the case. Keeping a sharp eye on both your diet and how your body reacts to it can help you anticipate and lessen symptoms. From there, it only takes a few changes to avoid those danger foods.

The FODMAP diet can seem intimidating, especially when starting out. An easy way to begin is by going on a gluten and dairy-free diet, as these are common triggers. From there, it’s a matter of gradually changing the various fruit, vegetables and sweets in your diet until you’re completely FODMAP free.

As always, if you’re unsure or are taking other medication, check with your doctor before starting the diet or taking the supplements mentioned.


Sources:

https://www.theibsnetwork.org/have-i-got-ibs/what-is-ibs/

https://www.ibsdiets.org/fodmap-diet/fodmap-food-list/

https://gut.bmj.com/content/59/3/325.short

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41430-017-0064-z

https://www.webmd.com/ibs/supplements-help-ibs#1